Tuesday, September 18, 2012

the 99 things that went right today, and the ONE that went WRONG

It was a day of beauty, puddle hopping, and loving messages scrawled on my office door, of meetings with good friends, and students coming together to share in worship.  There was productivity, and the promise of family hugs and good books at the end.  All was well, except that ONE thing.  It was really not a big deal, but it clouded my thoughts all day.  I had sent out a memo to faculty and knew that some would find it unwelcome or unimportant, yet I tried my best to send it from a humble and supportive place, hoping some would find it helpful.  And the first response was very positive and affirming.  But there wasn't much of a pause between that and the second ding of an incoming email that blasted me for my insensitivity and my erroneous information.  This faculty member felt personally insulted by how I had presented the memo and the timing of it.  Her words seems to scream at me through the email and I recoiled, shutting the message window without even reading it completely.

My first response was anger, as I felt the heat rising to my face, and my immediate impulse was to fire back a response.  Fortunately, I was in the company of friends, so I took a deep breath and tried to put it out of my mind.  It kept popping back, intruding on every positive moment, and I found myself complaining in a meeting about what a crappy day I was having, a day that outside of this one instance had seemed pretty ideal.

Isn't it strange how 99 things can go right, and all we can focus on is the one bad thing?  I continued getting positive responses from my email, so I felt affirmed that my attitude and tone in it had not been insensitive.  I wanted to feel justified, but I mainly felt shame--that someone had pointed out my mistakes, that I had been seen in a different way that what I intended, and that I had unintentionally hurt someone.  Fortunately, I've been reading Bren√© Brown's new book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.  If you haven't heard about Bren√©, you should check out her amazing TED talks .  She is a researcher studying shame and vulnerability at the University of Houston.  She talks about "shame gremlins" and how they sneak up on us and feed on our fears, making us feel that we are not enough.  Because of shame, we often act out in anger and defensiveness and try to ease our pain by hurting others.  

Because of this reading, and because of a lack of time today due to back-to-back meetings, I was unable to react and had to wait until the end of the day to craft a response.  Thankfully, I'd had the time to identify my shame triggers, think about how the other person was reacting out of pain, and I was able to apologize for my errors and the hurt I had caused.  I received another response later that thanked me for my kindness, and continued to correct me, but this time out of a spirit of helpfulness and cooperation instead of attack.  I'm grateful that we now have the potential to work together instead of having an adversarial relationship.  How easy it would have been for either of us to go in a different direction.  After hearing about the divisions between faculty and staff on campus, this was my first experience of the tension that exists.  But it's hopeful to know how it can be cut with vulnerability, openness, and communication instead of reactivity. 

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